As absorbent and mossy as the Pacific Northwest ground on which it is set, AMC’s “The Killing” must do what it can to avoid inevitable and perhaps dismissive comparisons to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” none of which it deserves but none of which can be denied. I almost feel bad for noting them here, given the new show’s confident sense of plot, character and unsettling artistry.
Still, “The Killing, ” which has been adapted from a popular 2007 Danish TV series called “Forbrydelsen,” is most like “Twin Peaks” mainly by being an exquisitely slow, episode-by-episode investigation of the murder of a teenage girl, who, like Laura Palmer before her, symbolically and physically commuted between the Madonna/whore divide.
The show also has rain and pine trees and cloudy spookiness and more rain. Its clues lead to dank basements and seedy apartment buildings — “dank” being the operative word to everything about “The Killing.” Mold may form as you watch it.
Fluorescent lights in the morgue and police headquarters flicker with a certain Lynch-ian taunt that renders the living pale and forlorn. And, most of all, as you become inexorably hooked, there is no guarantee that the mystery will ever be solved. (What it is free of: Log Lady mysticism, dancing-dwarf montages and other tangential hallucinations.)
“The Killing” runs for 13 episodes, beginning with a two-hour premiere Sunday night, none of which covers a time frame much longer than a single day. What seemed like Lynch’s vanguard sense of pace in 1990 now seems perhaps suicidally slow in 2011, when TV murders are typically solved in about 40 minutes.
Rosie Larsen, the victim at the center of “The Killing,” was the oldest child of a working-class couple, played with heart-heavy grief by Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes. She is discovered dead in the trunk of a submerged car on a Monday evening; she had last been seen the Friday before, at the high school Halloween dance, cavorting with friends — two of whom turn out to be hideously abusive.
Mireille Enos — who played polygamist twin sisters Jodeen and Kathy Marquardt on HBO’s “Big Love” — stars as Detective Sara Linden, looking forward to her last day of work and preparing to move to California with her son and fiance. Alas, Sara’s boss assigns her to Rosie’s case. “Clear this thing, and I’m just an address on a Christmas card,” he promises.
But he also saddles her with breaking in her replacement, Detective Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), a streetwise undercover officer transferred from vice to homicide.
Enos and Holder are interesting to watch together. To suffer another comparison, Enos brings an inquisitive, earthy beauty to her role that is reminiscent of Gillian Anderson’s understated skepticism in playing Agent Dana Scully from “The X-Files.” (Is it the red hair, the full lips? No, it’s about mood and sensibility. It’s also about an excellent script that easily shifts in tone, from flippant banter to deep sorrow, written by creator and producer Veena Sud.) Yet as good as Enos is, the show almost immediately belongs to Kinnaman, who exudes trailer-park menace and genuine warmth between puffs of a cigarette.
As the two make their way through “The Killing’s” eerie coincidences and layers, another major plot thread emerges: The stolen car Rosie died in belongs to the campaign fleet of a Seattle city councilman (Billy Campbell) who is locked in the final days of a close run for mayor. Although it’s nice to see Campbell (“Once and Again”; “The 4400”) put his square jaw and handsome face to morose use as an unlikely suspect, the city hall politicking makes “The Killing” feel more pat, like something out of an airport novel.
Yet I trust completely the template laid out for “The Killing” by the original “Forbrydelsen” (which I’ve not seen) and the artistic instincts evident in the first three episodes. Moreover, I tend to trust AMC’s willingness for the slow burn, as most plainly demonstrated by its popular hit, “Mad Men,” a show I’ve found difficult to adore as much as others have but that nevertheless prefers open-ended seething over tidy resolutions.
Where AMC had me with this kind of thing was in last year’s downbeat espionage series “Rubicon,” which ran so counter to the instincts of the thriller genre that it got itself canceled after one great season.
So much critical energy is spent deploring the way commercial TV devotes its energies to fighting the attention-deficit disorders of fickle viewers, while all of the commercial-free “good stuff” (HBO, Showtime) is reserved for people willing and able to pay three-digit cable or satellite bills. AMC is a worthy compromise in this battle, available to customers on a more budget-minded tier, offering dramas that, for once, ramp down to an intelligent, realistic stride.
Yet how slow can you go? That’s up to your threshold as a viewer. Who killed Rosie Larsen? (No, really — who?) Eventually, even the most patient among us will need to know, and we’ll need to know in this season, not another. Mystery fans would do well to sit back, watch and savor the wait.